At a time when the fashion industry still seems to be in a state of flux and still trying to find its place in the “new economy”, I felt like it was the perfect time to reflect back on the career of Willi Smith, a designer who didn’t take fashion too seriously and who took true inspiration from the streets.
Born in Philadelphia in 1948, Smith studied at Parsons and began his career freelancing for designers like Arnold Scaasi. He started his own company, Williwear, with his sister in 1976. New York City club culture was a strong influence on Smith’s work and the oversized proportions of his clothing were perfect for the club kids that he designed for and prefigured the baggy pants and shirts that would become a hallmark of the hip-hop culture of the late 80’s and 90’s. There was a refereshing lack of pretention in Smith’s collections and he once said that “I don’t design for the queen, but for those who wave at her as she passes”. Many designers claim to be influenced by what’s happening on the streets, but Smith actually managed to channel that energy into his clothing, turning Williwear into a $25 million per year business by the early 80’s.
Smith received the Coty Award in 1983 for womenswear and posthumously received a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame on 7th Avenue. Smith died in 1987 at the too-young age of 39 after falling ill following a trip to India. Designer John Bartlett, who had been working with Smith, took over Williwear until 1990. The first real designer piece I ever owned was a red cotton, madras print Williwear dress that I wore to death in high school with an equally well-loved pair of Doc Marten boots, and I am heartbroken over the fact that I have never been able to find it.
Here is a video featuring Smith’s designs from the 80’s. See if you can catch a very young Iman…